Who has God’s sympathy? For whom especially should we be praying? For whom should we be asking God’s blessing?
We are in the middle of the Olympic Games. What we see there are the healthiest bodies in the world, beautifully adorned with colorful spandex and youthful smiles. The Olympic Games are a celebration of health. Whatever else might surround or lie underneath these games (commercialism, ambition, illegal drugs, whatever) our first reaction to them may only be one of blessing: “Wow! Beautiful! This says something wonderful about life and about God.”
Moreover, what we see there are not just the athletes. They are surrounded by spectacular billion dollar venues, a host country showcasing its finest, television networks sending out colorful coverage around the world, and everywhere the carefully calculated display of youth, health, beauty, and affluence, as if it were these alone that made the world go round.
Sadly, health, beauty, and affluence are not born equally, distributed equally, and shared equally. Flip a channel or two on your television and you see the polar opposite: news channels replete with images of suffering, poverty, injustice, hunger, devastation, millions fleeing violence, millions living in squalor, and millions living with little hope on our borders everywhere. And, that’s just what we see openly on the news. What we don’t see are the millions of sick, the millions of unemployed, the millions who are victims of violence and abuse, the millions with physical and mental challenges of every kind, and the millions with terminal diseases facing imminent death. What do these lives and these bodies say matched against the lives and bodies of our Olympic athletes? A good question.
How does one assess this seemingly bitter contrast between what we see in the Olympic Games and what we see on world news? Where does this leave us in terms of our prayer and sympathy? Does the suffering of the poor so spiritually dwarf the health of the rich that our hearts and prayers are meant to embrace only the poor? If so, would this not cast negative light on the wonderful gifts of health and wholeness?
We can learn something here from the offertory prayers at a Eucharist. At a Eucharist, the priest offers two elements to God to represent bread, wine, and us asking God to bless each equally. They represent two very different aspects of our world and of our lives. To quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “In a sense the true substance to be consecrated each day is the world’s development during that day – the bread symbolizing appropriately what creation succeeds in producing, the wine (blood) what creation causes to be lost in exhaustion and suffering in the course of that effort.”
In essence, the offertory prayer asks for a double blessing, God of all Creation, we hold up for you today all that is in this world, both of joy and of suffering. We offer you the bread of the world’s achievements, even as we offer you the wine of its failure, the blood of all that’s crushed as those achievements take place. We offer you the powerful of our world, our rich, our famous, our athletes, our artists, our movie stars, our entrepreneurs, our young, our healthy, and everything that’s creative and bursting with life, even as we offer you those who are weak, feeble, aged, crushed, sick, dying, and victimized. We offer to you all the pagan beauties, pleasures, and joys of this life, even as we stand with you under the cross, affirming that the one who is excluded from earthily pleasure is the cornerstone of the community. We offer you the strong, along with the weak, asking you to bless both and then stretch our hearts so that they, like you, can hold and bless everything that is. We offer you both the wonders and the pains of this world, your world.”
God has a preferential love for the poor, the suffering, the sick, and the weak, and so must we. Our faith assures us that the poor enter the Kingdom more easily than the rich and the strong. However, while that is true, this does not imply that somehow it is bad to be affluent, healthy and strong. These bring dangers, for sure. Being young, healthy, strong, physically attractive, and talented is often (though not always) a formula for a conceit that sees its own life as more special than the lives of others. Few people carry extraordinary gifts well.
Despite that, however, we must still affirm that God smiles, positively, with pride and with satisfaction, on vibrancy, on those places where life is flourishing, healthy, young, talented, and physically attractive. God smiles on our Olympic athletes. God’s preferential love for the poor doesn’t negate God’s love for the strong. Like a good parent, God is proud of his over-talented children, even as there is a special affection for the child who is suffering.
At every Eucharist, we hold up both: our Olympic athletes and our refugees on our borders.